Harris and Rushdie on Hirsi Ali

This Los Angeles Times op-ed on the Dutch government’s decision to stop providing protection of Dutch citizen and former member of parliament Ayan Hirsi Ali is a convincing indictment of the Dutch government’s behavior:

Hirsi Ali was persuaded to run for parliament and to become the world’s most visible and imperiled spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women, on the understanding that she would be provided security for as long as she needed it. Zalm, in his capacity as both the deputy prime minister and the minister of finance, promised her such security without qualification. Most shamefully, Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, has recommended that Hirsi Ali simply quit the Netherlands and has refused to grant her even a week’s protection outside the country, during which she might raise funds to hire security of her own. Is this a craven attempt to placate local Muslim fanatics? A warning to other Dutch dissidents not to stir up trouble by speaking too frankly about Islam? Or just pure thoughtlessness?

Readers who are unfamiliar with Hirsi Ali’s story before she teamed up with the late filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, whose murder, perversely, made Hirsi Ali famous beyond the Netherlands, will also find some interesting information about her earlier life in the piece.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this op-ed is the fact that Sam Harris, the author of “The End of Faith” and the recent bestseller “Letter to a Christian Nation” teamed up with novelist Salman Rushdie to write it.

Ever since he was the victim of a fatwah calling for his death after the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” Rushdie has been a critic of radical and fundamentalist Islam and a staunch defender of Western liberal values. However, Rushdie’s critique of religious fanaticism has been mostly focused on Islamic world. If he has been as strong a critic of religion in general — and even of the brand of moderate Western Christianity that, thanks to thinkers like Aquinas, has managed to accommodate faith and reason, theology and philosophy, to an extent not seen in the Islamic world — then most of his readers in the West probably will have missed it.

However, Harris’s atheism seems to draw no distinctions between the intellectual history of, for example, Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is how the Washington Post summarized the views of Harris critics in an October 2006 profile:

The un-gospel according to Sam has found a huge audience, but every bit as striking is the counter-reaction to Harris among religious scholars. Mention his name to academics of just about every religious persuasion and you can almost see their eyes roll. Oh, that guy.

Harris has grossly oversimplified scripture, they say. He has drawn far-reaching conclusions based on the beliefs of radicals. As bad, his stand against organized religion is so unconditional that it’s akin to the intolerance he claims he is fighting. If there is such a thing as a secular fundamentalist, they contend, Harris is it. Even some who agree with his conclusions about the dangers of fanaticism find his argument ham-handed.

“I think this country needs a sophisticated attack on religion,” says Van Harvey, a retired professor of religious studies at Stanford University. “But pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics, that seems like a very crude mistake.”

According to Harvey, not only has Harris picked a fight with those who could be on his side, but his solution — let’s all ditch God — is laughable given the role that religion plays in so many lives. Others say that he has taken these “Old Books” at their literal word, instead of studying the way that the faithful actually engage the scriptures. Put more simply, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

It would be interesting to know whether Rushdie holds similarly absolutist views about the incompatibility of faith with reason, of religion with liberal values. The Netherlands and other liberal democracies should vigorously reject violent attacks on free speech and thought by religious radicals, and should not be cowered in their defense of liberty by those who believe that multiculturalism is the paramount political value. However, it seems to me that such a blanket rejection of religion as Harris’s has little hope of successfully fighting radicalism where it is most potent — in the Islamic world, where a liberalism that totally excludes any recognition of faith has little hope of taking root.

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